Funes Administration Refuses Calls to Repress Student Occupation
Funes Administration, Human Rights Office Defend Autonomy ofNational University, Refuse Calls to Repress Student Occupation
By J.L. Heyward
On March 17, a two week long student shutdown of theUniversity of El Salvador (UES) ended with off-campus student negotiations andan agreement by the Minister of Education, Human Rights Office and the SuperiorCounsel of the University (CSU) to create a roundtable to address the school’sresource crisis and create alternative budget proposals. The FMLN government’sactions opened new era of dialogue with UES students on long-held grievancesand broke with the status quo of past administrations which ordered police andmilitary attacks on student protests.
Fivegroups calling themselves “Los Aspriantes” (the Aspiring Students) staged theclosure, demanding that school officials immediately enroll 800 new studentswho had been denied admittance to the UES, El Salvador’s only publicuniversity, due to lack of resources. There were many other student organizations, however, who opposed theshutdown, arguing that the issue was a matter of national budget priorities,not lack of will on the part of the University. The 20 opposing groups, representing a much broadercross-section of the student base, have been vying for larger admissions eachyear through various means, including class audits and negotiations withUniversity administrators. Thegroups claim that until a massive budget constraint is resolved at the nationallevel, the school, with a current enrollment of 50,000 students, cannotconstructively admit more students.
Throughoutthe two-week toma (occupation), major daily newspapers including the Diario deHoy and La Prensa Gráfica attempted to force the hand of the riot police – theUnit of Maintenance and Order (UMO) – to intervene, running provocativeinterviews with the Director of the National Civilian Police (PNC), CarlosAscencio and the FMLN’s Minister of Public Security, Manuel Melgar. Meanwhile,the University’s Rector, Rufino Quezada, sought to put down the protest throughhis own aggressive means, portraying the student protestors as criminals andcalling for immediate arrests and charges by the Attorney General’s Office.
Manyvividly recall the National Civilian Police’s most recent incursion onto theUES campus in 2006, when the UMO and other “elite squadrons” were ordered bythe right-wing ARENA party to silence youth protests against a hike in bus fare. After opening fire onto theUniversity and illegally occupying the school for four days, the PNC falselyclaimed that it had discovered a stockpile of weapons and evidence of terroristactivity. It went on to furtherendanger the lives of a number of leftist student organizers by branding themterrorists and displaying their photos prominently in mainstream press; thiswas a tactic the right wing and the military used during the war to sow publicterror and endorse death squad assassinations of organized workers, campesinosand rebellious youth.
TheUES has a long been at the vanguard of political organizing in El Salvador; students were fighting the samestruggle of accessibility in the 1970s. Current Minister of Public Security,Manual Melgar was himself a student at the UES. Many former FMLN combatantsgained their political education and first organizing experiences there and sawcomrades die defending the school’s autonomy during the 1975 student massacre;the issue of the University’s struggle, therefore, is of great concern for manyFMLN officials who are now charged with making security decisions for thecountry.
Theadministration’s response to the March 2010 student occupation was verydifferent from that of previous administrations, demonstrating respect for theUniversity’s autonomy, the Peace Accords, and the student struggle. When RufinoQuezada called for on the PNC to unchain the gates and arrest the aspiringuniversity students, Minister of Security Manuel Melgar refused the dean’srequest, instead encouraging the university administration to exhaust allavenues of negotiation.
Duringtwo weeks of occupation and negotiation, the second block of over twentystudent organizations played a critical role in defending the autonomy of theUniversity and the safety of the other students, even though they did notsupport their demands. Hundreds of students held peaceful demonstrationsoutside the UES, calling on the occupying students to re-open the campus whilealso demanding that the police refrain from entering the university.
OnMarch 16, the University was re-opened, without police intervention, followingmediation by Human Rights Ombudsman Oscar Luna. The creation of a permanent roundtable with the UESadministration regarding the enrollment of new students is an importantachievement for the organized student movement, which has for generationsdemanded access to University for all Salvadorans as part of the constitutionalright to education.